So, superinjunctions. Everyone’s talking about them, right? Well, they were on Monday. Not so much now admittedly, our collective attention span being as hummingbird-like as it is. The papers are still full of them, of course, but they’re acting more out of sheer bloody-minded determination to finally publish what they’ve been blocked from printing for so long than as the result of a married man having sex with a single woman actually being remotely earth-shattering. Anyone who wanted to know the identity of the elusive CTB will have found it from a quick googling weeks ago; the only people to whom Giggs’ unmasking will actually have been news when they picked up their paper yesterday morning will be those who couldn’t care less anyway. Not that pig-headed contrarianism is the exclusive preserve of the press, mind you. The only reason the Twitterverse got interested in where Ryan Giggs’ genitals had been in the first place was because he tried to stop people finding out, and forgot that people on the internet don’t like being told they’re not allowed to know something. Never mind that there’s precisely zero public interest in us knowing this particular gobbet of non-news; anyone, anywhere trying to Suppress Free Speech must be stood up to, no matter how dull or trivial the information that’s being concealed. And no, it’s not enough to argue that free speech is worth standing up for in and of itself, either. Of course it’s a principle worth defending, but, as Reuben (and more recently Polly Toynbee) point out, so is the right to a private life. As I’ve argued before, there are always going to be cases where the principles we value will come into conflict with one another, and when that happens one has to win out over the other. In this instance, privacy should have come first.
Equally, though, we shouldn’t be too relaxed about the wider implications. The fact that Schillings (Giggs’ lawyers) tried to get Twitter to hand over the account details of users who named Giggs before John Hemmings did so in Parliament is pretty damn worrying. And, as has been pointed out, judges getting too injunction-happy is a real concern too. It’s almost certainly true, as Chicken Yoghurt suggests, that during the Trafigura scandal people focused far too much on freedom of the press and far too little on the whole ‘people in Ivory Coast getting poisoned’ thing, myself included, but it would be perverse to argue that therefore we shouldn’t worry about the judiciary being overzealous in muzzling the press and/or users of social media.
Ultimately, though, hand-wringing over the moral niceties of stuff like this is pretty futile (snide remarks at this juncture about how this compares in the pointlessness stakes to political blogging in general are most definitely not welcome). While we can set out why the Streisand Effect was a bad thing in the case of Ryan Giggs but a good thing with Trafigura, ultimately it’s as amoral a phenomenon as the weather. People are nosy, and the internet makes it possible to satisfy that nosiness, irrespective of subject matter. Look at Wikipedia’s list of examples for the Streisand Effect; they range from attempts to stop the publication of a story about Tunisian political prisoners to some storm-in-a-teacup moral panic over a naked picture on an album cover. As long as there’s an internet there’ll be stories like this, for good or ill. All we’ll be able to do most of the time is stand back and watch the fireworks.